When an athlete goes down with an injury, especially a serious one, we go through the seven stages of grief fairly quickly. Usually within hours, if not minutes, we’re conditioned to say things like “Next man up” or “OK. How do we replace him?” This exact scenario played out when Gordon Hayward went down with his horrific leg injury.
Before we get into the possibilities of replacing Hayward, it is important to note that he had surgery late Wednesday night. Early returns are encouraging and all reports are that Hayward will make a full recovery, but that that he is unlikely to return this season. And that unlikely return this year leads us to the “How do we replace him?” question.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement is full of exceptions to assist teams in building their roster. Most know about the Larry Bird Exception, which allows a team to go over the salary cap to pay their own free agents. We also hear about the Mid-Level Exception a lot, both Non-Taxpayer and Taxpayer. There are the Bi-Annual Exception, Room Exception and Veteran Minimum Exception. Every year these exceptions are used hundreds of times by NBA teams.
One exception that no NBA team ever plans to use is the Disabled Player Exception (DPE). The reason for this is that it means you’ve lost a player, generally a key rotation player who also makes a large salary, for the season. Such is where the Celtics find themselves following the Hayward injury.
There are a few things that the Disabled Player Exception is and is not. The purpose of this article is to help clear those up and then to suggest some ways the Celtics might use this tool.
First up, is that Boston is not automatically granted the DPE. The Celtics would have to apply to the NBA for the DPE. If it is ruled by the Fitness to Play panel or an NBA-approved physician that Hayward is substantially more likely than not to be out through June 15th, the NBA can grant the team a DPE.
Let’s assume the Celtics will apply for the DPE and it is approved by the NBA, as these Exceptions are rarely denied, where does that leave the Celtics? One common misperception is that this would create cap space for Boston. This is probably due to confusion between the DPE and the cap relief created when a player is determined to be medically unable to continue his career, as with Chris Bosh this past summer. They are very different situations, and one that fortunately is not the case with Hayward and the Celtics.
Assuming the Celtics are granted a DPE, they will receive an exception of $8,406,000.00. The DPE is limited to the lesser of the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level exception or 50% of the lost player’s salary. In this case, Boston would get the approximately $8.4 million exception.
So, how does that $8.4 million differ from straight cap space? First, cap space can be used however the team deems best, provided they meet the salary rules. That $8.4, if it were pure cap space, could be used to sign two or even three players. Or it could be partially used initially and then later used in full. Cap space can also be used to claim players on waivers or in trades.
The DPE works similarly, but is far more restrictive. The most important thing to note is the DPE can be used on just one player. No splitting it. No combining it with another exception or another player’s salary or cap space to take in anything more than $8.4 million. You get one shot to use it and that is it.
In addition, you can only use it to acquire a player for the remainder of that season. If used on a free agent, the player must sign only a one year contract. If used to trade for a player or claim a player on waivers, that player must be on an ending, or expiring, contract. This is inclusive of option years, so no getting a guy who has one year, plus a player or team option left on his deal.
Trading for a player gives you a very slight bump, as trade rules allow a team to acquire the value of the exception, plus $100,000.00. That means, if the Celtics were to use the DPE in trade, they could trade for a player making $8,506,000.00 or less, versus using it to sign a player for slightly less.
There are a few other criteria to keep in mind with the DPE. The first is that it must be used by March 10th. If it goes unused, it will expire. Second is that the DPE does not pro-rate, unlike other exceptions. It remains at the full amount, no matter when it is used.
Lastly, the DPE does not create an additional roster spot. The Celtics would remain at 15 NBA and two two-way contracts as their roster maximum. NBA teams can petition the league for an extra roster spot via the hardship exemption. But that comes only after at least four players have been sick or injured for at least three consecutive games and will continue to be out. Let’s hope this does not come into play for the Celtics.
Now that you know all about the Disabled Player Exception, who are some targets the Celtics could conceivably go after if they get the DPE? The first group is free agents. One advantage the Celtics have is that compared to other capped out teams, they would have the largest available exception to pay a free agent. And remember, since you can only use it on one player, so you might as well spend as big as it takes, assuming ownership is on board.
The available free agent list is a little scarce though. Old friend Gerald Green is free and would seemingly fill a need a for an experience wing, in addition to already knowing the Boston system. Matt Barnes is another versatile veteran wing on the market. Monta Ellis and Randy Foye are free agents, but Boston doesn’t need another combo guard. Joel Bolomboy was waived by the Jazz and would be a young player with some upside. But he’s a combo forward type and Boston has other young guys to play that role.
If the Celtics wanted to add a big, it is the same list as would have been available for the veteran minimum, with guys like Lavoy Allen, Boris Diaw (he has an NBA out in France), and Spencer Hawes. Younger options include Daniel Ochefu (briefly with Boston in camp), Diamond Stone and Stephen Zimmerman.
The trade market is infinitely more interesting and the name that immediately comes to mind is Nerlens Noel. Noel easily fits into the $8.5 million DPE and he’s somewhat on the outs with the Mavericks, as he signed the qualifying offer versus a long term deal. That works in Boston’s favor, as it fills the expiring contract part of the DPE criteria. The Celtics have been rumored to have interest in Noel in the past and he’s a Boston native. That could lend towards him re-signing in Boston after the season. In addition, the Celtics and Mavericks have linked up in the past for trades.
Alex Len is in a similar situation, but far less enticing than Noel. He’s simply not the prospect he once was. Boston might be better off just playing it out with the guys they have.
If the Bulls decide they need to cut ties with Bobby Portis, he could be an option as well, after he was suspended for breaking teammate Nikola Mirotic’s face. But he is less likely, as Chicago would have to first decline their 2018-19 team option for Portis, making him an expiring contract. Similarly complicated is former Celtic Al Jefferson. He would have to decline his 2018-19 player option to be eligible, and he’s unlikely to do so.
Will Barton is in some ways an ideal target, as he fits the bill as a scoring wing. His contract easily fits into the DPE, and he could be someone the Celtics could re-sign in the offseason. The challenge is that Denver is unlikely to want to move Barton, as they’ve already talked about possibly extending his deal themselves.
Trevor Ariza also fits, but he’s a big part of what Houston is doing with their small ball lineups to defend Golden State. Other veteran options include Vince Carter (when he’s trade eligible in December), James Ennis and Corey Brewer.
You can expect the Celtics to apply for the DPE if, and when, Hayward is ruled out for the season. If for no other reason, it gives them another possible tool to use to improve the roster. Danny Ainge is all about assets and flexibility, and the DPE would just be one piece of the puzzle.
Sources: The NBA has granted Boston an $8.4M disabled player exception for the loss of Gordon Hayward for the season. The DPE expires March 10.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) October 27, 2017
With the approval of the DPE, Danny Ainge and the Celtics can now start combing through free agency and possible trade targets. With Marcus Morris looking to make his return to the court next week, Boston still doesn’t know what they could use moving forward, but with the DPE on hand, they’ll now have a tool to fill a need before March 10th.